an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘history

on the history and future of human beans…

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… the oldest skull normally assigned to our species is almost 200,000 years old. It was found at Omo Valley in Ethiopia in the African rift valley. (In June 2017, human remains from Morocco were dated to 300,000 years ago, but their exact relationship to us remains uncertain).

David Christian, Origin Story p169

Canto: Dating the first Homo sapiens will always be difficult (I mean determining her provenance, not going out with her) because, like the first lion (Panthera Leo) or the first red kangaroo (Osphranter rufus) or whatever, she had parents, and great-grandparents, so when does any species actually begin? But apart from that taxonomic issue, the whole issue of dating, and classifying, hominins is obviously complicated by the dearth of fossil finds. In my reading and listening, the 200,000 year number usually crops up, in spite of the finding cited by Christian, which we’ve known about for some time. The Morocco site, specifically the archaeological site known as Jebel Irhoud, has yielded fossil remains since at least the early seventies, but a paper in Nature, published in 2017, relating to new finds at the site, controversially claimed a date of 315,000 years ago for skull, face and jaw bones of H sapiens…

Jacinta: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and it seems to me that the claims about early hominins, and especially the first of our species, will always be hotly contested because of that lack of evidence. Both the place, Morocco, and that early date are outside the known parameters for the earliest H sapiens. 

Canto: But Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist of some repute, appears half-convinced, arguing that, with the new finds and better dating methods, ‘the Jebel Irhoud bones stand firmly on the H. sapiens lineage’. However, it’s not easy to find much discussion online about it since 2017. I did find a full copy of the June 2017 Nature article, referenced below, and the Smithsonian appears to be taking the older date as established. I quote from their website:

During a time of dramatic change 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.

They don’t cite any evidence though. I mean, 100,000 years is quite a big gap. I presume there’s been a big search on in Morocco in recent years. The Smithsonian site also tells me most palaeontologists reckon H heidelbergensis is our direct ancestor, but the evidence is frustratingly scant.

Jacinta: Also, what does it mean to be human? I’ve often mentioned our hyper-social nature as something that sets humans apart, but were we hyper-social 300,000 years ago, or even 200,000 years ago? We’ve no idea, or not much idea, how we lived in that period – language, fire, tools, art, clothing, shelter… Did we congregate in large groups? How large, or small?

Canto: One site talks about ‘behavioural modernity’, dating from 65,000 to 50,000 years ago. That’s because there’s virtually no evidence – complex weaponry such as bows and spear-throwers, representational art, rough sculptures, bone flutes – of that kind of modern human stuff connected to earlier human remains. But the evidence from skulls suggests that our big brains were what they are now with the earliest versions of H sapiens. Skulls and genes tell us one thing, artefacts tell us another.

Jacinta: Yes, this Smithsonian site also suggests that human cultures, unlike other apes, ‘form long-term pair bonds between men and women to care for children’. They seem not to notice the rise of single-parent families in the modern era! Of course I’m hoping our WEIRD culture’s going the way of the bonobo – the women bonding together to raise the kids, with help from the odd metrosexual male. Is metrosexuality still a thing?

Canto: That’s so naughties…

Jacinta: But I really think that may be the next development – female power with men at last knowing their place as helpmeet. Lots of sex, fewer kids, and lots of collaborative scientific work to enable us to live better in a fragile biosphere, with a growing variety of other species.

Canto: Hmmm. Tell me more about the sex.

Jacinta: Haha well, what’s evolving is a drift away from religion as explanation, as we continue to pursue the history of our species, our planet, our galaxy, our universe, and considering those old religions were mostly born out of patriarchy and the male control of female sexuality, making a virtue of female virginity and prudery, sexuality will be released into the fresh air, so to speak. I mean, there will always be a power aspect to sex, no doubt, but with women on top, the empowerment will undergo an enormous, enlightening shift. I wish I could be there, in the vasty future, to witness it.

Canto: Dog knows we need more than a bit of female leadership right now, what with Putin, Xi Jinping, Orban, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Kim Jong-un, Trump (still President apparently), Lukashenko, Bashar al-Ashad, Duterte, MBS, Raisi, some Burmese fucker, etc etc. We really need more ball-cutters.

Jacinta: Well, obviously, I agree. Back in little old Australia…

Canto: Quite young as a nation, but very old as a culture, odd that.

Jacinta: Not odd at all, actually. Yes, back here in a nation largely sheltered from the storm, we’re too small, population-wise, to be internationally despotic the way Putinland is currently being. But I’m happy that we’re joining the chorus of condemnation against Putinesque aggression. I’m just wondering if this is the future. This attack on Ukraine seems like a throwback, throwing us as far back as – well, Putin isn’t even an ‘enlightened despot’ in the tradition of Catherine II, or Elizabeth (Empress of Russia from 1741 until her death in 1762). He’s more like Peter the Macho Thug, whose reign certainly modernised Russia, but the women who followed him did a far better job of improving Russia’s internal state. It was of course a time of violence and warfare, and these women were always surrounded by macho advisers at a time when warfare was a way of life, but their record for internal improvement stands the test of time. Russia has never had a female ruler since Catherine the Great – and it shows.

Canto: Yes, I know it annoys you that these early female leaders are like anomalies – treated as honorary males, surrounded by male advisors and expected, in fact virtually forced, to continue the fashion of aggressive territorial expansion. But current female leaders are a different matter, and maybe the current macho thugocracies are a dying breed, trying to bring everything down with their last gasps.

Jacinta: Yes, pleasant fantasies indeed. But with the growth of global problems – global warming, air pollution, species loss, refugee crises (caused by those thugocracies, but also by climate change and the eternal tendency of animals to move from high-danger low-opportunity regions to regions of lower danger and higher opportunity) we need collaborative solutions, rather than macho weapons build-ups. Enough arguing, let’s collaborate, and if the men want to contribute, they’re welcome. If not, they need to be put in their place. We need to set our social evolution in that direction. The point isn’t to understand our human world, it’s to change it.


David Christian, Origin story: a Big History of everything, 2018


Written by stewart henderson

April 9, 2022 at 5:19 pm

not Russia, Putin

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The world’s fledgling democracies, or non-democracies, are prone to instability, just as monarchies were in the past, because they were so subject to the vagaries of fate, and of particular individuals and their circumstances. When England’s Henry V died of dysentery near Paris just shy of his 36th birthday he had, in less than a decade, stabilised his English estate and inflicted mortal blows on the old enemy across the channel. Had Henry survived his illness, he would almost certainly have been crowned King of France, and the ‘Hundred Years’ War’ between the two kingdoms would have been reduced to just under seventy. As it was, England was in its most powerful position, arguably, since William of Normandy dispossessed or killed off the Saxon nobility and established his vast fiefdom.

But with Henry’s death it all fell apart. His successor was a nine-month old child, who grew up to be extremely timid and completely ineffectual as a ruler. Though he was briefly crowned King of France (at age 10), England was plunged into the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, and soon lost all its French territories apart from Calais.

Democracy, for all its flaws – due largely to the crooked timber of humanity – is the only form of government that allows for, indeed guarantees, at least in theory, the peaceful transfer of power between successive ‘regimes’. Post-Soviet Russia has of course, no succession system in place. North Korea is essentially a monarchy. As to China, the succession will be up for grabs, fought out within a tiny, absurdly corrupt clique. Other tyrannies face their own unique uncertainties. And the people will be forced to suffer the outcome in virtual silence.

As a member of ‘the people’, the canaille, the peasantry, the great unwashed, the proles, the rabble, the riffraff, the parasitic masses, I feel fortunate to live in a democracy, because there’s just no realistic alternative for people who don’t want to be unexpectedly interfered with for no apparent reason. Democratic governments don’t generally go to war, and certainly don’t start wars, if they think it’ll lose them the next election, and since it’s obvious that most people want a peaceful, unchanging life, that tends to settle the matter.

Which brings me to Russia and its suffering people. For centuries they were subject to a succession of dynastic emperors or Tzars, much like those in the rest of the vast Eurasian continent. Interestingly, the best of them was the Empress Catherine, a ring-in from Germany, who had to get rid of her nogoodnik husband (by an arranged marriage), a dissolute sadist, before she could establish her right to the throne – to which she had no ‘right’ – since rights were essentially based on primogeniture after initial warlordy slaughter.

But allow me to digress again to Western Europe et al. The principles of government began to change over time in the proto-WEIRD world, with its beginnings going back, arguably, as far as Magna Carta and the first English parliament in 1215, and boosted by the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century, with its indecisive victory for the parliamentarian faction. A half-century later King James II was forced into exile, and the first ever constitutional monarchy came into being. Over time, British governments gained ascendency as the power of the monarch waned, the concept of Prime Ministership evolved, and the voting franchise widened. Across the Atlantic, a new experiment in democratic government was undertaken, and of course in France a revolution went haywire, resulting in a new despotism under Napoleon, followed by a stumbling and backsliding course that eventually led to democracy by the end of the 19th century. Other European countries also experienced traumatic periods following the end of traditional monarchical or quasi-monarchical systems. Spain’s long monarchical period was often turbulent, but it looked like it had come to an abrupt end when Napoleon forced King Ferdinand VII to abdicate in 1808. After this the Bourbon monarchy-in-exile became a focus of resistance, but it soon lost support after the fall of Napoleon, due its extreme conservatism. Spain became a constitutional monarchy in the 1830s, but there were ongoing battles between political factions until the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1868 led to the ousting of Queen Isabella, the first truly reformist government in the country, and the creation of a Constitution promoting citizens’ rights. However, there was still plenty of political strife, and a coup d’état in 1874 restored the Bourbon monarchy. However, the new Constitution created an alternating system of conservative and liberal prime ministerships, which was innovative, though not exactly democratic. The relatively liberal constitutional monarchy limped on until Spain erupted in civil war, followed by the long, lost years of the Franco dictatorship. ‘Permanent’ democracy wasn’t established until the early 1980s.

I could go on with a fulsome account of the slow emergence of something like full democracy in Germany, Italy, the Baltic States and so on, but the overall point is clear – the old absolute power systems were not easily killed off and democracy struggled to get a foothold and should by no means be taken for granted as an established feature of the political landscape.

Now to return to Russia. Their absolute monarchy began, always arguably, with the murderous warlord now known, aptly enough, as Ivan the Terrible. Of course, warfare was a way of life in those days, but some took this way of life to ridiculous extremes. Ivan won some of his wars and lost others, as is the way, and the expansion and contraction of territories generally continued under his successors. So are nations arbitrarily founded (and losted) under absolute rulers. One of the features of Ivan’s rule was a 24-year Livonian War – Livonia being the territory now covered by the Baltic States, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Successful at first, Ivan failed as various surrounding forces rallied against him and the war severely depleted his military forces. Still, these and and other adventures no doubt have convinced Russia’s latest Tsar that these territories are an eternal part of Sweet Mother Russia, soon to be renamed Putinland.

Which brings me to Ukraine – but it would require a half-dozen books to do justice to the messy history of that country and region, even if only going back to the ancient Scythian kingdom, which covered not only modern Ukraine but much of south-western Russia. I’ll briefly mention the kingdoms, duchies, khanates, empires, republics and assorted noms de guerre associated with the region. After Scythia, there were the Slavic hordes, the Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde (mainly Mongols, at least at first), the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the kingdom of Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman Empire, the Cossacks, the Tsardom of Muscovy, the Hetmanate, the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire, the Free Territory of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (fighting both the Nazis and the Soviets), and, in 1991, independence from (then semi-Soviet) Russia.

So from 1991 on, Ukraine has been what might be called a proto- or wannabe-democracy (but aren’t they all?), rife with corruption – no doubt a hangover from the long Soviet years (imagine how long Putinland would last under a free press tightly protected by law). It reached its nadir under the grotesquely corrupt Pupin puppet, Viktor Yanukovych, who was chased out of the country in the heroic Maidan Revolution, aka the Revolution of Dignity, in 2014, no doubt to the nappy-wetting fury of our Vlad. It was this humiliation dealt out to Putin’s pal in Ukraine that led to the attack on the country later that year, and continued aggression leading to the current invasion.

So why has Putin gone so ‘overboard’ as to invade a country that has become increasingly uninterested in its ties with Russia and increasingly hopeful of joining the European Union and even, possibly, NATO, an organisation whose raison d’être is arguably the containment of Putin’s imperialist ambitions?

Well, to me, the NATO issue is a red herring. More important for Putin is the horror of Ukraine’s increasing democratisation, and its increasing indifference to Russia. There may be economic motives that I don’t know about (economics isn’t my strong suit, which is why I don’t own any suits), but the fact is that Putin is fanatically anti-democratic, and loves to surround himself with puppet thugocracies, as can be found in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Chechnya, North Korea and even China – obviously not a puppet regime, but just as thuggish.

And of course, Ukraine has a special importance to this wannabe Tsar, as a nation or region that has been in Russia’s sphere of influence for some centuries. But Putin has miscalculated majorly with this old-fashioned offensive. Ukrainians are a proud and fighting people, as the Maidan Revolution proved, and the vast majority have zero interest in kowtowing to the new Putinland. It’s already clear that the Ukrainians will not be cowed by this attack, and will not negotiate in any way with the aggressors. Most international observers are at a loss as to how Putin could have made such a monumental miscalculation, as he is generally a smarter thug than most. If Putin has a victory here at all, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. He will not be able to install a Yanakovich-style leader, as nobody of any credibility, inside or outside of the country, will support him. And many men, women and children will die because of this folly. Basically, Putin has already lost this one. And, due to all the sanctions, which I don’t particularly support, he will face plenty of unrest on the home front.

How this will now play out is anyone’s guess. Putin seems to me like a usually astute gambler who has suffered a brainsnap and gambled much of his political reputation away. He can’t now back out, and he can’t win. No reputable nation is backing him, sanctions will make him increasingly unpopular domestically, and he actually now looks foolish. The worry of course is that he’ll play his hand to the bitter end, and lash out with maximum force at everyone who opposes him. It would be nice to think that we’re seeing the tragi-comic end of the era of naked despotism, but of course there’s nothing comic about Putin’s antics and their horrific consequences, and let’s face it, the timber of humanity is extremely crooked in some instances, and that has its appeal to an alarming number of people. But at least with democracy, the consequences of such crookedness aren’t quite so devastating. In Putinland, that’s another story. We’re all hoping this will be Putin’s last stand, but on the domestic front, he’s far more familiar with the terrain. We, the international community, must make every effort to keep him in his box, and to support those in the former and hopefully future nation of Russia, whose hope and ambition is to deliver the fatal blow.

Written by stewart henderson

March 1, 2022 at 11:33 pm

resetting the electrical agenda

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the all-electric la jamais contente, first car to break the 100 kph barrier, in 1899

In his book Clearing the air, Tim Smedley reminds us of the terrible errors we made in abandoning electric vehicles in the early 20th century. Smedley’s focus was on air pollution, and how the problem was exacerbated, and in fact largely caused, by emissions from car exhausts in increasingly car-dependent cities like Beijing, Delhi, Los Angeles and London. In the process he briefly mentioned the electric tram systems that were scrapped in so many cities worldwide in favour of the infernal combustion engine. It’s a story I’ve heard before of course, but it really is worth taking a deeper dive into the mess of mistakes we made back then, and the lessons we need to learn. 

A major lesson, unsurprisingly, is to be suspicious of vested interests. Today, the fossil fuel industry is still active in denying the facts about global warming and minimising the impact of air pollution on our health. Solar and wind power, and the rise of the EV industry – which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in Australia – are still subject to ridiculous attacks by the heavily subsidised fossil fuel giants, though at least their employees don’t go around smashing wind turbines and solar panels. The website Car and Driver tells a ‘funny story’ about the very earliest days of EVs: 

… Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, built a prototype electric locomotive in 1837. A bigger, better version, demonstrated in 1841, could go 1.5 miles at 4 mph towing six tons. Then it needed new batteries. This impressive performance so alarmed railway workers (who saw it as a threat to their jobs tending steam engines) that they destroyed Davidson’s devil machine, which he’d named Galvani.

If only this achievement by Davidson, before the days of rechargeable batteries, had been greeted with more excitement and wonder. But by the time rechargeable batteries were introduced in the 1860s, steam locomotives were an established and indeed revolutionary form of transport. They began to be challenged, though, in the 1880s and 90s as battery technology, and other features such as lightweight construction materials and pneumatic tyres, started to make electric transport a more promising investment. What followed, of course, with the development of and continual improvements to the internal combustion engine in the 1870s and 80s, first using gas and then petrol – the 1870s into the 90s and beyond was a period of intense innovation for vehicular transport – was a serious and nasty battle for control of the future of private road transport. Electricity wasn’t widely available in the early twentieth century, but rich industrialists were able to create a network of filling stations, which, combined with the wider availability of cheap oil, and the mass production and marketing capabilities of industrialists like Henry Ford – who had earlier considered electric vehicles the best future option – made petrol-driven vehicles the eventual winner, in the short term. Of course, little thought was given in those days to fuel emissions. A US website describes a likely turning point: 

… it was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline [petrol]-powered cars widely available and affordable. By 1912, the gasoline car cost only $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank and giving rise to more gasoline-powered vehicle sales.

Electrically-powered vehicles quickly became ‘quaint’ and unfashionable, leading to to the trashing of electric trams worldwide. 

The high point of the internal combustion engine may not have arrived yet, as numbers continue to climb. Some appear to be addicted to the noise they make (I hear them roaring by nearly every night!). But surely their days are numbered. What shocks me, frankly, is how slow the public is to abandon them, when the fossil fuel industry is so clearly in retreat, and when EVs are becoming so ‘cool’. Of course conservative governments spend a fortune in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry –  Australia’s government  provided over $10 billion in the 2020-21 financial year, and the industry in its turn has given very generously to the government (over $1.5 million in FY2020, according to the Market Forces website).

But Australia is an outlier, with one of the worst climate policies in the WEIRD world. There will be a federal election here soon, and a change of government is very much on the cards, but the current labor opposition appears afraid to unveil a climate policy before the election. The move towards electrification of vehicles in many European countries, in China and elsewhere, will eventually have a knock-on effect here, but the immediate future doesn’t look promising. EV sales have risen markedly in the past twelve months, but from a very low base, with battery and hybrids rising to 1.95% of market share – still a paltry amount (compare Norway with 54% EVs in 2020). Interestingly, Japan is another WEIRD country that is lagging behind. China continues to be the world leader in terms of sheer numbers. 

The countries that will lead the field of course, will be those that invest in infrastructure for the transition. Our current government announced an infrastructure plan at the beginning of the year, but with little detail. There are issues, for example, about the type of charging infrastructure to fund, though fast-charging DC seems most likely.

In general, I’ve become pessimistic about Australians switching en masse to EVs over the next ten years or so – I’ve read too many ‘just around the corner’ articles with too little actual change in the past five years. But perhaps a new government with a solid, detailed plan will emerge in the near future, leading to a burst of new investment…. 


Tim Smedley, Clearing the air, 2019


Written by stewart henderson

February 27, 2022 at 1:07 pm

what is electricity? part 2 – the mystery gets murkier

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Canto: So we were trying to comprehend early ideas about electricity as a fluid, which led Franklin to define two ‘states’ of the fluid, ‘negative’ for having a deficiency, and ‘positive’ for having an excess. He also called the negative state ‘resinous electricity’ and its opposite ‘vitreous electricity’. Presumably he thought the fluid was in a balanced state before these different elements started rubbing against each other.

Jacinta: And they were trying to regain this balanced state, which made the sparks fly?

Canto: Dunno, but let’s return to Britain, where Francis Hauksbee (1660-1713), a lab assistant to Isaac Newton, was being inventive with air pumps and pneumatic engines, decades before Franklin’s 1840s experiments.

Jacinta: I’d ask you what a pneumatic engine is, but I suppose that’d take us way off topic?

Canto: Probably. It apparently has something to do with compressed air, and some kind of energy derived from un-compressing it, or something. Anyway, air pumps were used to create vacuums, or relative vacuums. Apparently, Hauksbee, an ingenious instrument maker, noted that glass was a really good material for viewing experiments, and in 1705 he performed a remarkable experiment with one of his air pumps and that mercurial, and very dangerous element, mercury (though ‘elements’ in the modern sense, weren’t known or at least defined at the time).

Jacinta: I suppose elements wouldn’t have been defined until the atomic theory became a thing.

Canto: Anyway I’m betting that his experiments with mercury shortened Hauksbee’s poor life (he was accepted into the Royal Academy in 1703, just as Newton became its president with the aim of reinstating its grandeur, but he was given special ‘low class’ status). He’d created a version of Otto von Guericke’s electrical machine, made of glass, with air pumped out, and some mercury inside. He rubbed the sphere to create a charge, and the mercury glowed when he put his hand on it (the globe, not the mercury). Fantastical, but nobody knew what it meant, except that it could be used as a source of night-light, which actually happened, but much later.

Jacinta: But nobody had much idea about whys and wherefores at this time.

Canto: They presumably speculated. A similar phenomenon, in large, was St Elmo’s fire (he was the patron saint of sailors), a bluish glow around a sailing ship, or more recently, around an aircraft. We know now this is a form of plasma, the ionised state of matter. During thunderstorms the voltage differentials are greatest – it requires a particular differential for it to happen, and the shape of the body around which the light is seen is an important factor. Pointy objects create a more intense field (Franklin realized this). The violet-blue light is caused by the nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere.

Jacinta: Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?

Canto: I’m never certain about anything, that’s my vocation, or just my fate.

Jacinta: Pneumatic tyres are filled with compressed air, or gas. So that helps to understand what a pneumatic engine might be, maybe.

Canto: So Hauksbee had found a way to accumulate an electric charge, and in 1745, in Leyden, Holland, they found a way to store this charge – an instrument that came to be known as a Leyden jar. Let me quote from the scientific historian, Thomas Crump:

The so-called Leyden jar was simply a substantial glass chamber, with separate layers of metal foils on the inside and outside surfaces. The inside was charged by a metal chain connecting it to a charged body, which then lost its charge to the air.

And this was apparently the first capacitor. We’ve talked about capacitors and supercapacitors before, but of course we barely understand them. In any case this Leyden jar device allowed a lot of electrostatic potential to build up between the inner and outer surfaces – enough to kill small birds who came in contact. Nice.

Jacinta: Or were forced to come into contact. I know they tried it on monks too. Presumably they couldn’t find the nuns.

Canto: Anyway they now had some control over this electricity thing, even if they hadn’t a clue what it was. They had some idea as to how to create and release this electrical charge thingummy.

Jacinta: So now we come to Coulomb?

Canto: No, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) first. I’m following Crump, for better or worse. But more importantly than people, it’s batteries we’re going to focus on now. And I’m not sure where to begin.

Jacinta: It was a term – battery I mean – first used by Franklin in 1749, but what he actually created were capacitors, devices that accumulated charge, until they were discharged. Batteries – I’m kind of guessing here – are devices that store charge more or less permanently, and can release charge in a controlled way, and be recharged in a controlled way.

Canto: And what is this thing called charge?

Jacinta: Well let’s continue to grope toward an understanding. So I’ll return to Franklin. He wrote a book, Experiments and observations on electricity, made at Philadelphia in America, published in 1751. His researches led him to believe that everything contained charge, positive and negative, but that they were almost always in equilibrium, a neutral state. Or the fluid, which could be ‘negativised’ or ‘positivised’ by friction, could be returned to balance by ‘discharging’ it.

Canto: And surely therein lay a mystery. How or why did this build-up of negativity or positivity get discharged? I just don’t understand it. Not just the discharge but the creation of the charge.

Jacinta: I suppose they – Franklin, Hauksbee and the rest – just made the observation and called it ‘charge’. From whence, ‘discharge’. Maybe you’re just overthinking it. They certainly didn’t know what was going on, they just noted this reliable cause-and-effect behaviour and sought to utilise it, and find out more about it. Anyway, keep on overthinking, it might be a good thing.

Canto: Okay, Franklin was exercised by the discharge side of things. He found that pointy objects – we now call them lightning conductors – were most effective at discharging this build-up of charge, and recreating neutrality, the safe, ‘natural’ condition. A great, practical solution for buildings. But he developed a theory of sorts, of zero-sum conservation of this thing called charge. Whatever was accumulated in, say, a Leyden jar, was restored on discharge, nothing gained and nothing lost. I think.

Jacinta: Well, here’s a quote from Crump’s book, which might unenlighten us further:

Franklin succeeded in giving Leyden jars both positive and negative charges, and showed that the force itself was stored in the glass of the jar with the charge being proportional to its surface area.

Canto: Yeah, that needs unpacking, if possible. The ‘force’ being stored, is that the charge? If so, why does he use different terms? Charge is either negative or positive, isn’t it? So he was able to give these jars either a negative or a positive charge/force, but not both at the same time, though it’s ambiguous in this quote.

Jacinta: What I think he’s saying is there’s this force, which we now call electricity, which can either be negatively or positively charged, and its strength will be proportional to the surface area of the glass jar. I don’t think he was giving the jar different charges at the same time, but how he knew that the charge was sometimes positive, sometimes negative, or what that even means, I’ve no idea.

Canto: Yes, I’m more confused than ever. Let’s try to understand Leyden jars a bit more. Apparently it was invented in 1745 by one Pieter van Musschenbroek as a ‘cheap and convenient source of electric sparks’. That’s from Britannica on electromagnetism. So, to be more precise about this first jar, it was a glass vial partially filled with water, which ‘contained a thick conducting wire capable of storing a substantial amount of charge’.

Jacinta: Presumably that ‘thick conducting wire’ corresponds to the ‘metal chain’ in Crump’s description. I don’t know what the water’s for.

Canto: And Britannica makes no mention of the ‘separate layers [how many???!!] on the inside and outside surfaces’.

Jacinta: Okay, here’s a simplified picture, which might help.

So, in this one there’s no water, but I’ve seen other pics that indicate a jar more than half-filled with water, so who fucking knows. Note that there’s one layer of tin foil on the outside and another on the inside. Note the metal rod passing through a cork into this evacuated jar, and then a wire, presumably of some kind of metal, connecting to the tin foil.

Canto: Is tin a good conductor?

Jacinta: Apparently so. Not as good as silver or copper, but better than lead. And please don’t ask me why some metals are better conductors than others. It’s so frustrating trying to learn from the internet, even when you know which sites to avoid. For example, take this statement on what I’d expect to be a reliable site:

Although Leyden Jars allowed the storage and dissipation of electricity, there were still issues present. One issue was the lack of energy from the charge. While it could only attract small objects like a bit of paper, that was all it could basically do. Also, it could only perform that function after the jar was charged, which also took lots of time.

And then this, from Britannica:

The Leyden jar revolutionized the study of electrostatics. Soon “electricians” were earning their living all over Europe demonstrating electricity with Leyden jars. Typically, they killed birds and animals with electric shock or sent charges through wires over rivers and lakes. In 1746 the abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet, a physicist who popularized science in France, discharged a Leyden jar in front of King Louis XV by sending current through a chain of 180 Royal Guards. In another demonstration, Nollet used wire made of iron to connect a row of Carthusian monks more than a kilometre long; when a Leyden jar was discharged, the white-robed monks reportedly leapt simultaneously into the air.

Canto: Hmmm. One of these descriptions is not like the other. Where’s Micky Faraday when you need him?

Jacinta: I can but do my best. Let’s get back to batteries, again. Franklin’s ‘battery’ was really a capacitor, as mentioned, a way of accumulating more electric charge, and temporarily storing it, until it was required for a sort of ‘big bang’ release, I think. You can do this with Leyden jars linked together:

The above ‘device’ was used for demonstration purposes back in the day. Franklin’s electrostatic machine, though, didn’t look anything like this. It was a mammoth device of cranks and pulleys, created with much help from his friends. The mechanisation was presumably for creating as great an accumulation of charge as possible. Crump writes that Franklin built a glass and lead battery consisting of eleven condensers connected in series – which is clearly not his electrostatic machine. And apparently it wasn’t a battery, either, at least not in the modern sense. And WTF is a condenser? Anyway, this confusion has gone on long enough. We’ll try to clear some of it up next time.


Thomas Crump, A brief history of science


Written by stewart henderson

December 6, 2021 at 10:57 pm

me and Montaigne

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Montaigne’s better half


I have no more made my book than my book has made me

Michel de Montaigne 

Before I start on Montaigne, some remarks on the title of this essay. Many English teachers are wont to correct it to ‘Montaigne and I’, hohum, but as an English teacher myself and an iconoclast of minuscule proportions, I beg to differ. The idea is that ‘me’ is an object pronoun, and that using it as a subject pronoun (as in ‘me and Montaigne is good mates’) is simply incorrect. This is bullshit, technically speaking. There’s no such thing as correct English, or correct any other language. I’ve had run-ins with fellow teachers on this, and it’s very headache-inducing. One argument is ‘How can you call yourself an English teacher if you don’t believe in the rules?’ But the rules of grammar aren’t delivered from on high, by lofty teachers or grammarians. They emerge in a community of like-minded souls who want to communicate effectively. There are some 7000 languages (and falling) in the world, setting aside dialects within particular languages. Less than half of these have a written form that’s utilised regularly by the language-users. So they don’t have grammar books telling them what the rules are. The first English grammar book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was published in 1586, obviously long after the language started on the evolutionary path that it’s still on.

All of this is not to say that language teachers are redundant. Sticking with English, what we teach is standard English, the English that’s found in current grammar books and written in works of fiction and non-fiction currently. It has two slightly divergent forms – British and United Stater English. Now anyone who’s an avid reader of English literature, going back to Shakespeare, Chaucer and so on, and forward to Milton, Austen and Eliot (George or T S), will notice subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in the language – in orthography as well as syntax. And with the spoken form we’re less structure-driven, we change our language depending on who we’re talking to, and we accompany our speech with a variety of paralinguistic features. Language is as alive as we are, it grows and changes, and in ye olde days grammar texts and dictionaries had to be renewed regularly to keep up, but now we have the magic of the internet…

But getting back to ‘me and Montaigne’, this is now acceptable in speech, and mostly in writing, because it involves no ambiguity whatsoever, and, more importantly, because it has become common usage. On the contrary, to say ‘me went for a swim’ also involves no ambiguity, but it sounds wrong, for the sole reason that it hasn’t become common usage, though it might, sometime in the future. To argue that ‘me went for a swim’ is simply wrong because me is always an object pronoun is just a statement about current usage. ‘You’ is currently used as both a subject and and object pronoun, why not ‘me’? Of course, saying ‘me and…’ is more plebeian, while saying ‘…. and I’ means you’re more likely to have a six-figure income and live in a gated community (not a gaol), but unfortunately ‘speaking the King’s English’ won’t guarantee you a place at court, so don’t worry about it.

So, getting back to Montaigne and me, I first read a selection of his essays in my early twenties, and he’s been a touchstone for me ever since. I need to thank him for encouraging me to become a writer. His mixture of me me me together with reflections on history, politics, science (insofar as there was much decent science in his time) and human behaviour really struck chords with me. I think he once wrote something like ‘I write not just to explore myself but to create myself’, though I can’t now find the reference – but the epigraph to this essay comes close enough. Anyway, I think he also wrote something like ‘whenever I learn of another’s good or bad behaviour, I think ‘how is it with me?”, and if he didn’t write that, it’s clear from his writings that this ‘egoism’ is a major focus. It’s what inspired me – a positive egoism – and I’ve followed him in trying to create a better self through reading, learning, and writing about it all.

There’s a vas deferens, of course, between me and him. He inherited a castle and a whole lotta land from his dad, who was clearly the dominant parent for him. My dad once bought me a motorbike, and to my shame I never thanked him for it. By that time my parents had separated. My mother was the head of our household, the breadwinner, the disciplinarian and influencer, and sadly for me, very much the enemy. To use the phrase of the day, I came from a broken home. The major result of the various minor traumas I experienced at home and school was an excessive hatred of being told what to do. My mother, sensing that I needed some ‘male discipline’, and with a mortal fear that I might be homosexual, tried to interest me in a manly career in the military, or the police perhaps. I would have preferred a quick, painless death. Sometimes mine, sometimes hers. All the same she was a hard-working, successful woman, who turned her children into feminists without ever saying a word on the subject.

Anyway, I read, and lived in the different countries of the past. And so it continues, though over time I’ve moved from the worlds of Hardy, Austen and Stendhal (fond memories) to the Big Issues of politics, science and How We Are to Live, and I started to write, and to like myself as a writer, while always being a bit ashamed of my hubris.

And I encountered Montaigne. Thoroughly egoistic and yet kind of self-effacing. Que sais-je?, his Socratic motto, sort of summed it up, especially as it was worn as a medallion around his neck (but perhaps this was a conceit of the artist who painted his portrait). It made so much sense to me – I loved it. Now I’m trying to mine his essays for anything faintly bonoboesque, with little success so far. Montaigne, typically for his time, was absorbed in the affairs of men, and in his essay-writing retirement he loved to consult the ancient classics, all written by men. Montaigne did marry and have children, but we know little more than that. His father seems to have been a much more significant influence on him, at least as far as he understood it, than his mother, whom he barely mentions – but then, he seems to have been the subject of his super-rich dad’s humanist experiments. He was literally farmed out as a baby to one of the peasant families his father owned, presumably to experience the sweated labour of the indigent, but it’s doubtful that he learned much since he was back in the castle by age three. Another of his dad’s brilliant ideas was to force the lad to learn Latin by having all his servants and teachers speak to him solely in that language. Then at age six he was shuffled off to a boarding school headed by the leading Latin scholar of the day. He apparently performed well in his studies, perhaps on pain of death, albeit a very humane one. So with his aptitude, and especially his connections, he became a rising star in the legal and administrative world of his day, and was a member of the French king Charles IX’s court before he was thirty. He hob-nobbed with the aristocracy, finessing the then-toxic Catholic-Protestant skirmishes, and earned the respect of Charles’ successor, Henry III, as well as the future Henry IV, France’s greatest monarch.

Now when I look at Montaigne’s life and achievements, I think ‘how has it been with me?’ But seriously, what has always attracted me in Montaigne’s writing and outlook (exemplified also in Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker – I had considered using a variant of Rousseau’s title for these essays, just altering one letter in the word ‘walker’), mutatis mutandis, is its discursiveness, its apparent willingness to follow a thought into all sorts of by-ways, so that you look up from the screen – in my case – and wonder, Jeez, how did I get here?

In any case, Montaigne’s marriage is a bit of a black box, and he has little to say of women in general. The upper aristocracy in those days tended not to marry for love of course, and his relations with his wife appear to have been cordial – if overly diluted cordial. There is at least one extant letter to her (Françoise de la Chassaigne by name, of doubtless unimpeachable pedigree), a short piece enclosing, for her own consolation, Plutarch’s consolatory epistle to his wife upon the death of their young daughter (Françoise ultimately gave birth to six daughters from two marriages, but only one lived to adulthood, and none outlived her). It’s a friendly if rather formal letter, and includes the line ‘Let us live, my wife, you and I, in the old French method’. I believe the French method may refer to cunnilingus, but perhaps not in this instance.

But this merry thought brings me back to bonobos. We’re emerging from millennia of patriarchy, in which men have been instructing their female inferiors how to behave. Plutarch, in the above-mentioned epistle, praises his wife for her womanly restraint in attending to her baby’s funeral – no over-the-top female caterwauling, an obvious sign of vainglorious insincerity etc etc. For some reason it all made me think of those bonobo females biting the penises of uppity males. And of the SCUM manifesto….

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2021 at 6:20 pm

a bonobo world: monogamy, heavy culture, gynocracy

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“our ancestors established the rule that all women, because of the weakness of their intellect, should be under the power of guardians”

Cicero,  Pro Murena


Boudica of the Iceni – to the life

Having been brought up in a disastrous monogamous relationship has given me a lifelong bias against monogamy – I should make this important admission from the start. Of course, I’ve since witnessed many successful and happy monogamous pairings, but I can’t help feeling that social pressures (and religious pressures, but those are gradually weakening in the WEIRD world) and long-term cultural expectations are acting as a kind of cement to relationships that could have been more open.

The recent dithering of our Australian federal government in finally legalising same-sex marriage (largely due to the composition of our federal parliament being significantly more religious than the general population) had me thinking in something of a blooming, buzzing confusion. My initial reaction was – what do they want to get married for? When I realised that one important reason was that marriage was supported by law in various ways – spouse inheritance for example – as well as being an important form of public recognition in the face of naysayers, I relented. But still – monogamy as the ultimate legal achievement?

As a teenager in the late sixties and early seventies, I felt energised by the sense around me that so many social mores were being up-ended. Dress codes became degendered, colour was in for everyone, and free love was in the air (up there just beyond my reach). It didn’t last, of course – no hippy parliamentarians, judges, business leaders in the nineties, or very few. Men in blue or black ties, women (the few who achieved such prominence) in stupid shoes, it all seemed horribly retrograde – one step forward and two steps back. Currently, there’s a lot of talk about community values – perhaps underlined by the current pandemic – but the hard shell of the nuclear family, with one or two parents, and the occasional grandparent – shows no sign of cracking.

As mentioned previously, I read Children of the Dream in my youth, hoping to find an alternative to nuclear family monogamy, long before I discovered bonoboism. The kibbutz world, though, had little about it that was organic or evolutionary. It was a devised, top-down socialist thingummy, and its ruling shibboleth – ‘from each according to her ability to each according to her need’ had an element of enforcement about it, while bonobos appear to have arrived at a similar system without a conscious thought. And there were/are other problems with the kibbutzim. It was essentially monocultural, though gentiles were allowed in, if they toed the line. Multiculturalism, and multicultural interaction and exchange, it seems to me, must be an essential feature of a successful human community in the modern world. In fact Israel is a country that shrieks failure in this regard – a failure that was essentially intended from the formation of the new state of Israel – to the despair, I should add, of many Jews with better intentions.

To continue on this theme of culture, I like the idea of the light culture/heavy culture distinction. I was born into a Scottish culture transplanted to Australia – about as far away from Scotland as the globe allows (though culturally not so much). This allowed me to dip in and out of the shallows of Scottish culture more or less at my leisure. My mother occasionally mentioned the hope of one of her offspring learning highland dancing or bagpipe-paying, but nothing came of it – though I wish I’d kept the kilt I was gifted at age thirteen or so, and had the chutzpah to wear it to school, and beyond. In any case, our move to Australia further lightened a culture that was already blended into a more generalised WEIRD world. This is important, as not all cultures are equally valuable – a controversial claim for some, but argued eloquently, for example, by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape. I recently met a friendly New Zealander at an art event, a man who, by his features, I recognised as of Māori origin. When I mentioned this, he became almost aggressively negative. He wanted nothing to do with that culture, he’d come to Australia to escape all that. Of course I didn’t press him on any details, which left me free to speculate wildly. The Māori male has become a stereotype of macho toughness, a stereotype much-promoted by non-Māoris, according to Waikato University’s Professor Brendan Hokowhitu. However, stereotypes generally have some basis in truth. My first experience of Māori maledom was a bantering conversation in an Adelaide pub, which led to him grabbing my arm tightly and pushing his staring, tattooed face into mine. I was quite sober and quite sure I hadn’t said anything to offend any reasonable, or reasonably unreasonable person. I should also add that, physically, I’m a rather flimsy male specimen. However, I didn’t want to be humiliated, so I simply stared back at him, and waited for his whole-body erection to subside, which it eventually did. After which I managed to skedaddle with a modicum of dignity, only cursing that I hadn’t notified the bar staff of his behaviour.

This was heavy culture, it seemed to me, of the most physical type. Another quite different example, came to me via a highly intelligent young student whom I was tutoring on Zoom recently. She lived in Australia but English was her second language and I was helping her with its connotative aesthetics vis-à-vis essay-writing. In one essay she described returning to India for a holiday, and the culture shock she received, as a near-adult, in being confronted by her extended family’s adherence to the caste system. As a member of the Brahmin caste, and as a person who’d experienced years of relative egalitarianism in Australia, she was well placed to recognise the casual injustice, and the blindness to it, in her extended family’s behaviour. She tried to confront her elders about it, but of course as a teenager she lacked the status and the articulacy to be effective, and was only too happy to return to a future in Australia.

It seems to me that heavy cultures are invariably patriarchal, and monogamous, often punitively so for women. We can’t always blame religions, which are generally born into a patriarchal culture, which they then reinforce. Perhaps the most patriarchal culture in human history was that of the ancient Greeks, often described as the culture that gave birth to democracy, a ridiculous claim given its dependence on slavery and its treatment of half the population, or potentially half, since female infanticide was almost compulsory among them. Archaeologists digging up bones from that era have noted the overwhelming preponderance of adult male bodies over females, largely the result of an unofficial, and rather self-defeating, ‘no female child’ policy. The Romans were no better – no ancient Roman female, apart from the odd goddess, has ever been recognised for her sagacity or prowess in anything, as far as I’m aware. The Romans were apparently shocked, on occupying Brittania, to find that certain women there, such as Cartimandua and Boudica, wielded actual power over estates and armies. Tacitus, Caesar and Cassius Dio are, unfortunately, the only writers to have presented these women to the world, and being Roman, are highly unreliable sources. Boudica in particular has become a woman for all ages since her time, with portraits of her reflecting the shifting social attitudes towards powerful women through the centuries. It’s quite likely, though, that the Romans’ prurient interest in the warrior women of Britannia exaggerated their power and their numbers. With territorial disputes often descending into warfare, men would surely have been at the helm during much of Iron Age Britain. The epigraphic evidence is limited mostly to militaristic inscriptions, and there is a weighting of archeological evidence from the Romanised aristocracy at a later date. We have little idea of the lives and status of Briton women before the Roman ascendancy.

Of course we don’t need prior examples of somewhat more gynocratic cultures to mold our own, though it would help to inspire. We also need to be aware of what we’re up against, as if it hasn’t long been obvious. In Afghanistan, as I write, the new government appears to be cutting girls off from all but the most elementary education. How Greek can you get? And this is only the news that’s speaking loudest to us at present. Lack of opportunity for women at the highest level is a commonplace for virtually every country on the globe. And the fewer women there at that level, the harder it tends to be for them. And yet…



Written by stewart henderson

September 18, 2021 at 8:00 pm

bonobos, religion and feminism

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bonobos, promoting the common good

Yuval Noah Harari argues in Homo Deus that religion has lost, or is losing, its political clout, and is largely a force of the past with little impact on the future. This is largely true, but more so in WEIRD countries. Catholicism still has a firm grip on many South American and African countries, and I don’t see any Islamic nations Enlightenment in the offing – but you never know.

During the ‘New Atheism’ fervency of a decade and more ago, I became quite engaged in the issues. I’ve never believed in any gods, but I’d avoided really thinking about Christianity’s ascendancy in the UK and Australia (I have dual nationality). The decline of the religion even before New Atheism had made it all quite easy to ignore, but the new polemics excited me enough to read the new texts – The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and assorted others. Perhaps more importantly, I actually read the Bible, and, through my blog, wrote my own exegesis of the gospels and other New Testament writings, compared Jesus to Socrates, and other fun things. It passed the time. And I’m sure the movement hastened the drift away from religion in the WEIRD world.

For these essays, though, I’m thinking of how religions have impacted on the females of our species. Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism, in particular, have had a congealing affect on male and female social roles, especially, it seems, among the poorer classes in the cultures those religions dominate.

There’s a lot that I could say about religions, but in a nutshell they grew, initially, out of a desire to understand and control the world as humans saw it. That’s why, in my view, they’re in competition with science, which grew out of exactly the same desire, but which has turned out to be phenomenally more successful in fulfilling that desire. So religions are in wholesale retreat, especially in the WEIRD world.

Let me elaborate. The world to early human apes was full of mysteries, as it is to bonobos, chimps and other smart creatures, who might take note of such sights as waterfalls, volcanic eruptions, lightning fires, and even, perhaps, slow changes like the growth of a tree from a seedling. Also regular occurrences such as the change from day to night, seasons, the movements of the sun, moon and stars. But human apes would likely go further than a sense of wonder and awe. They would come to wonder what, and why. And lacking any handy explanations they would turn to inventing them – and those whose inventions seemed most convincing, and who seemed most familiar with the forces at play, either through delusion, calculation or conviction, might attain a power of sorts over the group, something seen as innate and special, and perhaps passed down to offspring. The forces and vagaries of wind and water, heat and cold, of food abundance and scarcity, might seem to be manipulable by the powers and spirit of these chosen few, the adumbrations of religious figures, shamans, a priestly caste. And given that, apart from a few notable exceptions – some ancient Greeks and the odd Egyptian and Chinese – science as we know it is a very recent phenomenon, religions held sway for ages, not only explaining and ‘controlling’ the powers of nature, but inventing plausible enough stories for how it all began and who to thank or blame for it all.

If this just-so story about the origins and purpose of religion has some truth to it, then it follows that religion has a conservative element. This is how the world began, these are the forces that created it, and this, that and this is what they want from us, in payment for the life they’ve given us. It’s unchanging, and we need to maintain our roles, eternally. For example, the Judea-Christian origin story has woman as almost an afterthought, man’s helpmeet, shaped from a supernumerary rib. The Islamic creation story is altogether more vague, but both myths took shape within highly patriarchal societies, and served to maintain those societies largely unchanged for centuries, until we began to find better explanations, at an accelerating rate.

Still, we’re left with the legacy of those religions and, for example, their views on leadership. It strikes me that some of the Catholic hierarchy would rather be burned at the stake than allow women to become priests, and I doubt that there are too many female Imams. There are debates of course, about whether restrictions on female leadership roles are cultural or religious, or indeed about whether culture and religion can be separated, but they often work together to maintain a perennial status quo.

Until, of course, they don’t. Modern science has knocked us off our pedestal as the darlings of the gods, and has reframed what used to be our whole world as a tiny planet revolving around a bog-standard star on the outskirts of a fairly nondescript spiral galaxy in one of possibly countless universes. It’s been a bit of a downward spiral for our sense of specialness, and it’s all been quite sudden. We can pat ourselves on the back, though, for having brought ourselves to our senses, and even for launching ourselves into the infinity of progress – a world of particle colliders, tokamaks, theory-of-mind-AI, quantum computers and space tourism and much else beyond the horizon. And yet, the old patriarchy is still largely with us. Men in suits, or in uniforms, leading the military, dominating the business world and manipulating the political arena. There’s no good reason for it – it’s simply tradition, going back to early culture and religion. Some of these cultures seem incorrigible in spite of their new-found WEIRDness. Will Japan, for example, ever transform its male business and political culture? When will we see another Chinese woman in the Politburo? As to Russia’s Putin and his strong man allies – when will this kindergarten club grow up?

With the success and growth of modern science has come great international, and inter-gender, collaboration. I can think of no greater model for our future development. With the current pandemic, too, we’ve seen follow-the-science politicians, many of them women, emerging with the greatest credit. Co-operation among women has always been powerful, but too little recognised. I would like to see more of this co-operation, especially in the service of keeping men in their place. It works for bonobos. I truly feel that a bonobo culture, but with human brainpower, would make the human world more exhilarating, in its compassion, in its sexiness, in its sense of connection with the biosphere and all its delicate mechanisms, than any other cultural change we can make. I actually think it will happen – though sadly not in my lifetime.

Written by stewart henderson

August 18, 2021 at 8:24 pm

returning to the race myth

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‘My own personal view is that today we over-privilege and fetishise the concept of identity’.

Mark Thomas,  Professor of evolutionary genetics, University  College, London (quoted in  Superior: the return of race science, by Angela Saini, 2019)

A couple of years ago I tackled issues of race and identity politics in a post which focussed on ‘blackface’ among other things. I don’t think there’s much I’d change about it, but my current reading of Angela Saini’s above-mentioned book, in particular the chapter ‘Roots’, which relates what anthropology has found regarding the first indicator of race amongst those who tend to obsess over it, namely skin colour, has updated my knowledge without really changing my outlook.

When we think of ‘white’ people one of the most obvious examples would be the pale, cold-weather Scots, of which I’m one. We’re not called WASPs for nothing. I was amused as an adult to find paperwork indicating that I was baptised as a Presbyterian. WTF is that? Another funny thing about my waspness is the fact that I’ve lived in sunny Australia since the age of five, my skin darkening quite splendidly every summer in the pre-sunblock era. Needless to say my intelligence dipped sharply during those months.

Saini relates a story about a 1903 archaeological discovery in Somerset, of one of the oldest human bodies ever found in Britain. Dating back some 10,000 years, he was given the name Cheddar Man as he was discovered in caves at Cheddar Gorge, and much more recently he was analysed by genetic sequencing. There was naturally a lot of interest in the genetics of this fellow, as English, or British, as cheddar cheese.

… what came as a real shock to many was that his bones… carried genetic signatures of skin pigmentation more commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa. It was probable, then, that Cheddar Man would have had dark skin. So dark, in fact, that by today’s standards he would be considered black.

Superior, Angela Saini, p167

Visual reconstructions based on the genetics also showed him to be far less WASP-looking than genteel society might condone. It was front-page news stuff, but experienced geneticists such as Mark Thomas were unfazed. The fact is that modern genomics has probably done more than anything else to scuttle the notions of fixed identities relating to blackness, whiteness, Europeaness, Asianess, Africaness, Scandinavianess or Irishness. In short the necessity of ness-ness ain’t necessarily so.

This has everything to do with genetic drift. As Thomas explains it, in pre-civilisation times, humans migrated in small groups, and would have varied physically (and of course in other ways) from those they separated from. Later, as groups grew and became more stable, there would have been an opposite effect, a greater homogeneity. Thus we see ‘Asians’, ‘Africans’ and ‘Europeans’, from our limited perspective, as near-eternal categories when in fact they’re relatively recent, and of course disintegrating with globalisation – an extremely recent phenomenon, genomically speaking.

On ‘blackness’ itself, that may have been a more recent phenomenon in our ancestry than ‘whiteness’. My good friends the bonobos, and their not-so-nice chimp cousins, tend to have light skin under their dark hair. As we moved forward in time from our ancestral link with chimps and bonobos, losing our body hair and increasing the number of sweat glands as we became more bipedal and used our speed for hunting, there would have been a selection preference for darker skin – again depending on particular environmental conditions and cultural practices. There is of course a quite large gap in our knowledge about early hominids (and there is controversy about how far back we should date the bonobo-human last common ancestor – identifying Graecopithecus as this ancestor tends to push the date further back) considering that Homo Habilis, which dates back, as far as we know, to 2.3 million years ago is the oldest member of our species identified so far. Beyond H habilis we have the Australopithecines, Ardipithecines, Sahelanthropus Tchadensis and Orrorin tugenensis, among others, which may take us back some 7 million years. DNA analysis can only take us back a few thousand years, so I don’t know how we’re ever going to sort out our deeper ancestry.

In any case, the new racial ‘ideas’, given impetus by various thugocracies in the former Yugoslavia as well as today’s Burma/Myanmar, China, India and the USA (where it may yet lead to civil war) are an indication of the fragility of truth when confronted and assaulted by fixed and fiercely held beliefs. Social media has become one of the new and most effective weapons in this assault, and when thugocracies gain control of these weapons, they become so much more formidable.

Truth of course, is, and should be its own weapon against identity politics. Knowledge should be the antidote to these supposedly indelible identities, of blackness, whiteness, Jewishness, Hindu-ness and so on. Unfortunately, too many of us are interested in confirmation than in truth. In fact, according to the psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, in their book The enigma of reason, we use reason more often to confirm beliefs that we want to be true than for any other purpose. And when enough of the ruling class are concerned to confirm erroneous beliefs that happen to advantage them, as is the case for the current Indian Hindu government, the result is a thugocracy that oppresses women as well as the so-called ‘untouchables’ and other victims of the two-thousand year old caste system.

But having just read the chapter entitled ‘Caste’ of Angela Saini’s book, I should modify those remarks. The current Indian government is only reinforcing a system the disadvantages of which are more clear to ex-pats like Saini (and some Indian students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching) than it is to those that remain and ‘belong’. It involves more than just caste and religion, as it’s practiced by Christians and others, and enforced by families and broader relational and cultural units. My own detachment from family and cultural constraints makes it easy for me to judge this rather harshly. And in faraway Australia we hear of the horrors of in-group fealty without feeling its comforts. And naturally as a working-class lad and anti-authoritarian my sympathies are definitely with the underclass.

So how do we overcome the inwardness of caste and class systems, which are ultimately destructive of genetic diversity, not to mention causing the immiseration of millions? The answer, also provided by Mercier and Sperber’s thesis, is interaction and argument. They argue that reason developed as a social rather than an individual phenomenon. Evidence of course also must play a part. Saini’s book provides an excellent example of this, and the scientific community generally does too. Mercier and Sperber give an interesting example of how the marketplace of ideas can produce effective results over time:

The British abolitionists didn’t invent most of the arguments against slavery. But they refined them, backed them with masses of evidence, increased their credibility by relying on trustworthy witnesses, and made them more accessible by allowing them to see life through a slave’s eyes. Debates, public meetings, and newspapers brought these strengthened arguments to a booming urban population. And it worked. People were convinced not only of the evils of slavery but also of the necessity of doing something about it. They petitioned, gave money, and – with the help of other factors, from economy to international politics – had first the slave trade and then slavery itself banned.

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, H Mercier & D Sperber, p314

Some would say, of course, that slavery is still flourishing. I’ve even heard the claim that Jeff Bezos is the quintessential modern slave-owner. But nobody is credibly claiming today that slavery is reasonable. It has long ago lost the argument. That’s why evidence-based argument is our best hope for the future.


Superior: the return of race science, Angela Saini, 2019

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, 2017.


Written by stewart henderson

June 17, 2021 at 8:51 pm

exploring the history and future of human monogamy

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the world’s dictatorships, according to someone – but remember, not all dictatorships are thugocracies and not all thugocracies are dictatorships

So, humans are predominantly monogamous, but our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, are sexually promiscuous within large male-female communities. When and why did we turn monogamous?

Offhand, I’ve heard of and can think of a few answers. For example, I’ve read that it began with the notion of private property, which itself began with or was reinforced by the advent of agriculture and permanent settlement. Many anthropologists try to date this, but the spread of Homo sapiens and her ancestors both within and outside of Africa produced a diversity of cultures, no doubt tightly related to environmental conditionals. For example the Australian Aborigines lived here for as much as sixty thousands years without developing permanent settlements and agriculture, and they were right not to do so, as the soil and conditions didn’t favour that lifestyle. So monogamy would have become the norm at different times for different cultures, and sometimes not at all.

Bearing all this in mind, I take with some salt the claim by Kit Opie, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College, London, that ‘the modern monogamous culture has only been around for just 1,000 years’. Okay I got this in a report from CNN Health – did they lose a zero somewhere? Opie’s argument is a familiar one, about property and inheritance, but surely this goes back more than a thousand years in Europe.

Of course, inheritance only matters when you have something to inherit, and in feudal society that wasn’t much for the vast majority. In early agricultural society, perhaps it was even less of a consideration.

Another causal factor I hadn’t considered, but which may have been effective in reinforcing monogamy rather than causing it, was the rise of STDs in earlier times. These diseases had ravaging effects, and would certainly have inhibited promiscuous behaviour among the infected and their associates. Infections of this type tend to make us more insular. The sad death of Nell Gwyn (and her lover Charles II) is a prime example. It’s likely that both syphilis and gonorrhoea jumped to humans from cattle and sheep, but that appears to be centuries rather than millennia ago.

Another theory has to do with the enlargement of the human brain, together with the changes to the female pelvic structure due to bipedalism. This of course takes us back much further in time. With females being more incapacitated during this period, and requiring assistance during childbirth, would this have resulted in closer male-female bonds? Then again, this might have strengthened female-female bonding, for obvious reasons. In any case, these problems of childbirth are likely to have increased social cohesion. And at some stage in the enlargement and greater complexity of the human brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, humans or their ancestors would have twigged to the connection between sex and pregnancy, and so male parentage, or what has been termed ‘reproductive consciousness’. An attempt to answer this ‘when’ question was posted in Slate back in 2013 (all links below), but understandably, it comes up with nothing firm, and even the claim that this understanding probably occurred in Homo sapiens between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago strikes me as questionable. Did H neanderthelensis have reproductive consciousness? Could H erectus have had some such understanding?

I would expect there to be a link between reproductive consciousness and monogamy, so answering this question is important. Of course, knowing, or having a strong sense, that a female’s new-born is also a product of a male (a very sophisticated and hard-won notion, as Matthew Cobb’s book The egg and sperm race makes clear) would change male-female dynamics in a dramatic way. It might be expected to turn the male and female into a team. It might also be expected, in a generally promiscuous culture, to turn males into jealous rivals, each asserting parenthood or ownership of the offspring over others. With no other form of proof, the ‘father’ would be the contest winner. Another way of assuring paternity, of course, is to reduce or eliminate the promiscuity, to ensure that you could be the only father.

So now I’m looking at the why of monogamy rather than the when. Anthropologists have found that different cultures have different understandings of the relation between sex and pregnancy, and there are likely different understandings within those cultures too. But even if one man’s paternity is accepted in all or most cases, we can’t be sure that this will lead to monogamy. It would depend on the group’s dynamics. For example, imagine a bonobo-like human culture, in which the mother-child bond is very strong, and adult female bonds are also very strong, so that the mother would get help from other females when she needs it (and males too will help out, but they are further along in the chain of connections). Why should males knowing that they’re the father change this dynamic? There’s already a perfectly adequate, female-centred method for bringing up baby. The males had previously been shut out, and knowledge of paternity wouldn’t necessarily change that situation, even if the females acknowledged the paternity of particular males.

Again, it seems to me that monogamy is most likely to be linked strongly to private property, which isn’t a concern for bonobos, but is more so for chimps, who fight over territory and pecking order, between and within groups. And fighting over territory has been a virtual raison d’être for humans as far back as we can trace.

So it seems that bonobos are really the outliers – less monogamous than us, less possessive and less aggressive. So is it possible to learn from those relatively dumb beasts?

Well maybe we already are, without quite being aware of it. I always live in hope. The push is on – and it is relatively recent – to recognise intellectual powers and physical skills. Women have been allowed to study at universities only recently – less than a century ago. Women’s sport has only started to come into its own in the last couple of decades. Beauty pageants – putting women in their ornamental place – are on the decline. And we note with both horror and satisfaction that the world’s thugocracies – Afghanistan, Algeria, Russia, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Hungary, Brazil, Chechnia, Belarus, Burma, Turkey, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Angola, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Burundi, the two Congos, Cambodia, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Cuba, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Mauritania, Libya, Oman, Kazakhstan, Laos, Vietnam, Gabon, Qatar, Rwanda, Eswatini, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Uganda, Western Sahara – and yes, there are a lot, and I’m sure there are more – these thugocracies are, without exception, controlled by men. And if you look at countries run – at least for the time being – by women, such as Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Slovakia, they make for great holiday destinations, especially in the time of covid. Though they might not let you in.

So the evidence is mounting that a human world turned upside-down would be a great improvement. My hope is that women continue to band together with other women to make it happen. Sadly it won’t happen in my lifetime, but I look forward to seeing a little more progress before my span is complete. Whether this world would continue to be as monogamous as it is now is an interesting question. As has been pointed out, by Melvin Konner amongst others, men are largely surplus to requirements, once their sperm has been gathered, so they may be treated like drones, of the ant variety, and left to die. Or maybe they’ll be kept on as pets and playthings, as well as useful drudges. Whatever the future holds, monogamy is certainly not a necessary part of it.

References and links

Matthew Cobb, The egg & sperm race, 2006

Melvin Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2021 at 7:28 pm

clothing: when a solution becomes a problem

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Canto: So we talked previously about the horror of stilettos, which was all about the absurdity of fashion, and the sad fate of fashion victims, sigh, but fashion, and the clothing industry in general has lots of problems at the production end as well as for the end-users.

Jacinta: Yes – of course at the user end there’s the huge problem of waste. I walked past a nearby Salvos shop on the weekend, and their donation bins were overflowing to a ridiculous degree, piled up in the doorway, and neighbouring doorways, extending a long way down the street.

Canto: At least people are trying to recycle, but I wouldn’t like the job of sorting that stuff out. And of course the people who do that job are volunteers, though living in a country with a reasonable safety net and a minimum wage which is one of the highest in the world according to this Australian Industry Group website. But wages and conditions, as well as our buying habits, especially those of your fellow female primates, are what I want to focus on today.

Jacinta: So women, especially teens, buy these cheap foreign-made clothes from overseas sweat-shops, wear them once or twice and chuck them out – they call it ‘fast fashion’ – and the cycle continues. A handful at the top are making tons of money, while others are getting sick from overwork or from ingesting toxic chemicals. Petrochemical-based textiles now make up 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and rising. They also add to the biosphere’s growing microplastics problem. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 35% of microplastics come from these textiles.

Canto: I should point out another issue with ‘fast fashion’. When the fashion changes, which it does on an almost weekly basis, the brand names, such as H&M, Topshop, PrettyLittleThing and please don’t make me name any more, they just dump them.

Jacinta: Yes, but not in recycling bins. Only about 1% of textile waste is currently recycled, for all sorts of reasons, such as the technology required to separate blended chemical textiles. They can be shipped to India or African countries, but that just delays the problem briefly.

Canto: It’s kind of fascinating how many problems we make for ourselves by becoming supposedly more sophisticated, manufacturing and then dumping all these techno-solutions. We’re the only mammals that wear clothes, and as with footwear, it’s hard to say exactly when all that began, never mind when it all morphed into competitive fashion shite.

Jacinta: Actually we can only say that we’re the only extant mammals to wear clothes. An associated question is, when did we start, and finish, losing our body hair? Here’s an interesting quote from one Charles Darwin:

No one supposes that the nakedness of the skin is any direct advantage to man; his body, therefore, cannot have been divested of hair through natural selection.

He thought it was a matter of sexual selection. Do we find hairless bodies more attractive? Maybe, but probably not universally. Today we undoubtedly find bonobo/chimp/gorilla-type hair unattractive, but that’s surely because we associate it with non-human primates. Many women I know find men with hairy legs quite the turn-on.

Canto: But not furry legs. They have to be humanly hairy. So maybe there was a natural advantage to being less hairy. The move into open, sunlit spaces seems to have been key. If you’re covered in hair, it reduces heat loss through the skin. Also, being upright exposed less of the body surface to the sun. Probably explains why we keep the hair on our heads, to protect those heads, and the ever-expanding brains inside them, from getting fried.

Jacinta: And in the cooler regions, and during cooler eras, and at night, we could supplement our hair with artificial coverings, proto-clothing. But in those regions and times, plenty of hair would be an advantage. But anyway, for some reason, our ancestors started losing their body hair. I wonder when, exactly.

Canto: There’s probably no exactly. But upright stature helped in hunting, allowing us to run long distances, in which case losing heat through sweating would’ve been advantageous. Remember, it would’ve been easier to keep warm, through covering, than to cool down, with all that hair.

Jacinta: They could stay in the shade, like bonobos do.

Canto: Big-brained humans require too much energy for their owners to spend time under yum-yum trees. We have lots of sweat glands compared to other primates. It helps us to run fast and long. Those monkeys that have more sweat glands than others are also fast movers. There are some puzzles about all this, though, about what came first and why – reduced hair, bipedalism, larger brain. 

Jacinta: But getting back to modern clothing and fast fashion and the like – or maybe not modern clothing. I’m thinking, when did clothing become mandatory. Maybe it’s not manatory in all cultures, but among our European forebears, how did it manage to become grossly offensive to go about naked like our bonobo cousins? It seems to have happened very recently in paleontological terms. I mean it’s associated with civilised behaviour somehow. 

Canto: Only ‘savages’ went about in the altogether. Or ancient Greek actors and athletes. Of course, clothing quickly became a hierarchical thing – the higher-ups dressed more elaborately, and the proles weren’t allowed to, and so were despised for their shabbiness. Being completely naked was real low-life stuff, and a sexual element evolved alongside all of that. And a gender element. 

Jacinta: That’s going a bit fast, perhaps, but I’m sure it’s on the right track. So I’ve found various sites discussing this issue of hiding our genitals. John Romero provides a pretty comprehensive account, of clothing in general as well as our new age modesty. He reminds us, for example, that nakedness among the Greeks wasn’t confined to performers and athletes. Public baths were communal, as were Roman toilets – they didn’t blush when they flushed. Actually, they didn’t flush, at least not the way we do. Of course the creation myth of Judeo-Christianity, which had small beginnings but soon spread throughout Europe and the globe, had Adam and Eve feel ashamed when they realised they were naked, but it doesn’t explain the realisation, since they were the only humans on the planet at the time apparently. Nevertheless, this association with nakedness and shame was hammered home by church authorities, and has much to do with current attitudes.

Canto: But the association between nudity and shame was clearly felt by those early biblical writers. That dates it to around 2,600 years ago at most, though religious biblical scholars generally prefer an older date.

Jacinta: We just don’t have any way of dating the origin of nudity as shameful. Clothing is only the most obvious way of concealing nudity, but the origin of clothing surely has nothing to do with shame. And nobody really knows when clothing originated, or when we lost our body hair, which was clearly a gradual process. But to return to our arguably over-dressed, throwaway modern society – which often plays with modesty in a titillating way…

Canto: Modesty’s a tricky word though. Isn’t wearing showy expensive clothing a kind of immodesty?

Jacinta: I was thinking of the skin-tight fashion of young women – I don’t know about the price. Not that I disapprove, I’m only concerned with the waste.

Canto: Better for the environment if they go about naked, you’re right.

Jacinta: Hmmm…



Australia had the highest minimum wage in the world in 2019


Written by stewart henderson

May 24, 2021 at 7:46 pm